Study on Jewish Young Adults Finds Service Not Related to Jewish Identity

Jewish young adults overwhelmingly demonstrate an abiding commitment to volunteerism, with a particular interest in efforts to eradicate poverty and illiteracy and preserve the environment. At the same time, their service tends to be infrequent and motivated by a desire to make a difference in their local communities. And although their commitment to volunteerism increases with their degree of religious involvement, most do not connect their volunteering to their Jewish identity nor do they consider Israel to be a major focus of their service endeavors.

These are the major findings of the first-ever comprehensive study of contemporary Jewish young adults and their attitudes and behaviors towards community service. The study – Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults – was commissioned by Repair the World and was conducted as a collaborative effort between the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications.

The survey examined a diverse sample of young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 35, drawn from the Taglit-Birthright Israel applicant pool of more than 300,000 individuals and the Knowledge Networks online research panel. The Taglit pool is the largest extant list of American Jewish young adults and includes program participants and non-participants from virtually the entire spectrum of Jewish backgrounds and denominational identities. The Knowledge Networks panel is a representative sample of the U.S. population using probability-based sampling techniques.

Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World, explained that, until now, little was known about the full extent of the sample group’s service commitment. That was the goal of this study, “to develop a portrait of what motivates Jewish young adults to volunteer, the varieties of service in which they participate, and how they construe the connections of their involvement in volunteering to Jewish values and identity.”

Of significant interest to our readers:

Young Jewish adults do not know about volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community.
A substantial number of respondents, 23%, indicated that their lack of familiarity with volunteer opportunities available through the Jewish community was a major reason why they did not volunteer with Jewish organizations. There is also the perception among this cohort that Jewish organizations do not address the causes that most resonate with them, and that the focus of Jewish organizations is too parochial and narrow, serving only the needs of the Jewish community.

Other key findings of the study are:

  • The majority of contemporary Jewish young adults engage in volunteer work, with volunteer rates ranging from 63% to 86% depending on denomination/identity. Over three-quarters, 78%, also engage in some form of civic activity, such as participating in the political process, publicly expressing their opinions, or financially supporting causes. Motivation tends to be rooted in a desire to make a difference in the lives of others and working on issues that have personal meaning with the volunteer.
  • Most volunteering is an infrequent and episodic activity. Almost one-third of respondents have made volunteering an integral part of their lives and engage in a service activity at least once a month. But, only 21% have participated, at some point in their lives, in an intensive program of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college spring break (“Alternative Break”) or immersive summer experience. More than 50% of respondents said that in a typical week they don’t volunteer.
  • Much of the volunteer work is local, as cited by nearly 80% of respondents, and focuses on efforts to ameliorate disparities in economic resources and educational opportunity. Indeed, as it relates to the focus of respondents’ primary volunteer work, the three most cited are material assistance to the needy, health care/medical research, and education/literacy. Conversely, only 1% of respondents cited Israel/Middle East Peace as the primary focus of their volunteer work.
  • The most commonly cited volunteer activities included teaching and mentoring, as well as collecting, sorting and distributing goods such as food and clothing, event planning, and providing manual labor for building construction and revitalization or repairs.
  • Gender is a significant predictor of volunteerism, with 78% of females, compared to 63% of males, volunteering within the past 12 months.
  • Religious involvement also influences volunteer habits. Jewish young adults with the highest levels of Jewish religious involvement, including but not restricted to Orthodox young adults, are the most likely to engage in volunteering, to do so regularly, and to volunteer under Jewish auspices.
  • Volunteering is the result of social learning that originates in the home and is reinforced by peers. Social networks, such as family and friends, play a prominent role in volunteer recruitment, as cited by nearly 25% of respondents. Parental involvement also tends to be a motivating factor; Jewish young adults who recalled their parents engaged in community service were themselves more likely to be regular volunteers.
  • Only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10%, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations. Moreover, only 18% said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profit organizations. And the vast majority, 78%, said it doesn’t matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish.
  • Universal values rather than Jewish-based values and identity drive volunteerism. For many young Jewish adults, volunteering is an activity partitioned off from their Jewish identity in much the same way that their Jewish identity is separate from many aspects of their current lives. Overall, only 27% of respondents agreed that they consider their volunteer actions to be based on Jewish values and only 10% strongly endorsed this statement.

“This survey provides important guidance for effectively engaging Jewish young adults in more sustained and effective modes of volunteering,” Rosenberg explained. “It also provides a baseline for change within the Jewish service community. Our challenge – as an organization and as the community at-large – is to bridge the gap between service and Jewish identity, and help young Jewish adults see their engagement through the prism of Jewish tradition, values, and identity.”

Poll: Among young Jews, activism driven more by universal values than religion

(CNN) – The fervent instinct for social action that energized Jewish-Americans when they fought for workers’ rights and civil rights, rallied for the creation of a Jewish state, and battled all sorts of bigotry throughout the 20th century still percolates.

But the fire is burning more sporadically, is not necessarily connected to Judaism, and it doesn’t “significantly embrace” Israel, according to a poll released Thursday by Repair the World, a group that promotes volunteering among Jews.

The survey is a snapshot of preferences and habits of young Jewish adult volunteers. And many will be surprised by its findings, which shows that those volunteers tend to be motivated by universal rather than Jewish values.

Only 27% say their volunteering is be based on Jewish values, the survey found. And 78% say it doesn’t matter whether they volunteer with a Jewish or a non-Jewish organization.

Most “do not participate in a volunteer activity under Jewish auspices,” with just 18% reporting a preference for giving time to Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profits.

A new generation of American Jews are compelled by issues in their own backyard – like poverty and illiteracy – rather than the faraway flashpoint of Israel, the survey found.

Nine percent are animated by Israel and Middle East peace, while 36% are stimulated by material assistance to the needy, 30% to education and literacy and 29% to the environment.

Young Jewish adults “are primarily drawn to service through universal values rather than Jewish-based values or identity,” the polling analysis found. Only “a very small portion of Jewish young adults volunteer as a means to represent the Jewish community to the larger society,” the analysis said.

Young Jewish volunteers are frustrated by a perceived lack of satisfying volunteer opportunities in the Jewish world, the survey found.

“Much of the volunteer work of Jewish young adults is comprised of local efforts to ameliorate disparities in economic resources and educational opportunity and often entails activities such as collecting, sorting, and distributing goods,” the polling analysis said.

The survey was produced to help shape strategies to generate interest among young Jews in volunteering, an activity that should become a “normative Jewish rite of passage,” says Jon Rosenberg, chief executive officer of the New York-based Repair the World.

This snapshot of the volunteer behavior and thinking of young Jewish adults – “Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young” – is based on the responses of 951 Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 35.

It was conducted as a collaborative effort with the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications.

Most of the sample is drawn from the applicant pool of Taglit-Birthright Israel, the group that sponsors free trips to Israel for young Jews.

The study says it’s likely that Orthodox respondents, non-college graduates, and children of intermarried parents are under-represented. At the same time, Repair the World’s poll analysis says that the sample is diverse and “in many ways resembles known characteristics of the U.S. Jewish population.”

The picture drawn by the survey is of a busy community trying to juggle its schooling and work life with volunteering.

Many of these respondents can only be politically and civically involved in a tangential way because of time and economic constraints, the survey found. As people focus on getting their degrees and developing their careers, they can only devote so much time to volunteer work.

The majority of Jewish young adults “participate in some form of volunteer work but many do so only sporadically,” the poll findings say.

“Only 45% report civic behaviors that require an active effort, such as participating in demonstrations or attending a government meeting.”

Volunteerism tends to run in the family. Young Jewish adults who volunteer are most likely to have participated in high school volunteering and lived in a household where their parents volunteered, the poll showed.

“Women and those who come from homes with one non-Jewish parent are also more likely to volunteer, although not more likely to become regular volunteers,” the study said.

Israel and the Middle East and issues involving conflict resolution generate some but not as much inspiration for Jewish-Americans seeking volunteer opportunities.

The issue with that has the largest focus of primary volunteer work is “material assistance to the needy” at 16%. Service to the Jewish community comes in fifth at 8% and Israel/Middle East peace stands at 1% in this category.

“I was very surprised where Israel ranked,” Rosenberg said. “That’s an area where a lot of work can be done.”

But, it said, they do not know what opportunities exist and “of greater concern, they do not perceive Jewish volunteer options as addressing their most deeply held concerns.”

Rosenberg said he was also surprised by the survey’s finding that young Jews do not think there are Jewish volunteer options that speak to their deepest concerns.

Rosenberg said, the poll “charts a path” to help deal with what is an “idealistic” and engaged” population.

“Although there is certainly an important role for Jewish organizations to play, and it is critical for them to do a better job of contacting Jewish young adults and connecting them to service, it is also imperative to understand that participation through Jewish organizations is unlikely to form the conduit toward volunteering for most,” the poll said.

The survey called for a number of strategies to “more effectively engage Jewish young adults in service.”

They include starting early to build the “habit of volunteering,” expanding “volunteer options that relate to core concerns,” such as helping the poor, and working with non-Jewish organizations.

One significant strategy is framing the act of volunteering as a Jewish act, according to Repair the World, whose name is based on the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, or repairing the world, a concept in Judaism referring to social action and community service.

Ironically, many of the people who enthusiastically volunteer but see their inspiration as universal might not realize that their interest in public service passed down from their parents and passed along by their friends could stem from the Jewish values that their parents and grandparents imbibed.

“With limited Jewish background and few current connections to religious life, most contemporary Jewish young adults are simply unaware of the deep roots of social justice and helping in Jewish tradition and text,” the poll analysis says.

“Even when they know that these values exist, Jewish young adults who identify as non-Orthodox or are not religiously involved may be uncomfortable taking on the mantle of a Jewish perspective,” the analysis says.

Video: Hillel Students Serve in Russia

This past May, a group of 170 Hillel students and their families volunteered to help clean up Jewish cemeteries across Russia – in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Khabarov. Together they restored headstones, swept up leaves and debris and painted fences. It was a meaningful act of service, particularly considering that many of the cemeteries across the former Soviet Union – both Jewish and not – are poorly maintained.

Check out the video of their day, made by one of the student participants:

See more on eJewishPhilanthropy and Hillel’s website.

Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults

Repair the World is pleased to present the first-ever comprehensive study of contemporary Jewish young adults and their attitudes and behaviors towards community service. Entitled “Volunteering +Values: A Repair the World Report of Jewish Young Adults,” the study was commissioned by Repair the World and conducted as a collaborative effort between the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein-Agne Strategic Communications. Prior to this study, little was known about the full extent of Jewish young adults’ service commitments as national surveys of volunteering either did not include information about the religious identity of respondents or contained too small a sample of Jewish young adults to permit meaningful analysis.
Read more

Go to Hazon’s Food Conference this Summer – with Pursue

Pursue is teaming up with Hazon to offer partial scholarships to the Hazon Food Conference, this August 18-21.

The scholarships, which are designed for participants “interested in developing their leadership and networks in food justice work and activism,” cover up to 100% of registration fees (room and board not included). Participants will attend the full conference, which includes a built-out food justice and food policy track this year, and be a part of Pursue’s growing food justice cohort.

Recipients of the food justice scholarship are required to attend a pre-conference orientation call, actively participate in the conference’s food justice track, contribute a post to the Pursue blog, attend a debrief conference call, and bring back the ideas and energy from the conference to their home communities.

The deadline to apply is June 27. Read the full details here, and click here to apply.

Find out more about Hazon’s Food Conference in the video below:

Monday Link Roundup

Happy Monday and day after Father’s Day. Hopefully you spent the day relaxing with family and friends. Now, to get your week started off right, here’s your weekly dose of inspiring links from around the web.

  • The Huffington Post published a touching essay by actress Marlee Matlin about her “father’s chutzpah,” and how his cancer diagnosis a few years ago has inspired her to speak out.
  • Zeek magazine published a thought-provoking article questioning “do we still need Jewish feminism?”
  • JTA published an obituary and tribute to Yelena Bonner, a human rights activist who fought on the front lines for Soviet rights.
  • Jewschool included a post on “Chew on This” – a new food justice series co-sponsored by Pursue, Hazon, Uri L’Tzedek and other organizations, that kicked off last week. Missed the first event? Check out this interview with Nancy Romer of the Brooklyn Food Coalition on Pursue’s blog.
  • j.weekly, on a related note, published a profile on Oran Hesterman, author of the new book on food politics, Fair Food.

Weekly Torah: Parshat Shlach 5771

This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Shira Fischer.

For many of us, the situation in Sudan feels hopeless. In Sudan’s western region of Darfur, a genocide has continued for eight years, claiming the lives of more than 450,000 people and displacing millions of others. Meanwhile, decades of civil war between the North and South had finally ended in 2005, only to suffer repeated flare-ups like the latest clashes in Abyei, ((Gettleman, Jeffrey, and Josh Kron. “Warnings of all-out War in Fight over Sudan Town,” New York Times, 22 May 2011.)) which threaten this fragile peace.

So many people have died already in this conflict that sometimes it is hard not to feel like our efforts to pursue peace are futile. Lately, when I receive e-mails urging me to take action about Sudan, I often give in to my feelings of hopelessness and do nothing at all.
Read more